Becoming an Immigration Lawyer: Job Description & Salary Info

About this article
Get the truth about an immigration lawyer's salary, education requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and see the pros and cons of becoming an immigration lawyer.
View available schools

Pros and Cons of Being an Immigration Lawyer

Immigration lawyers help individuals attain citizenship, defend the rights of immigrants, navigate the issues of illegal immigration and help businesses understand immigration issues in a global marketplace. Weigh the pros and cons of a job in immigration law to make an informed choice about your career.

Pros of Being an Immigration Lawyer
Attorneys in general enjoy higher-than-average salaries ($133,000 as of May 2014)*
Fulfillment from helping others attain U.S. citizenship**
Excitement from working in the constantly-evolving and intellectually-demanding legal field**
Good option for those with an entrepreneurial spirit (22% of all lawyers were self employed in 2012)*
Opportunities to work in various settings (solo practice, corporate office, government, etc.)**

Cons of Being an Immigration Lawyer
Extensive training required (a combined seven years of undergraduate and law school)*
Steep competition for positions as there are more law school graduates than job openings*
Admission to law school is highly competitive*
Must be admitted to a state bar and maintain licensure through continuing education*
Many lawyers work long hours preparing for cases*
Stress involved with defending clients in court*

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **American Bar Association.

Essential Career Info

Job Description

Immigration law is a pressing issue in the United States, and lawyers are essential to ensuring due process to documented and undocumented immigrants; in fact, the American Bar Association (ABA) firmly supports positive reform measures to the immigration court system, which includes improved access to lawyers. Like all attorneys, immigration lawyers advise their clients, both individuals and business entities, in legal matters. As an immigration lawyer, you may represent your clients in court, help clients understand legal documents and conduct research on legal issues. Examples of issues you might deal with include advising legal aliens on paths to citizenship or relocating business professionals to foreign countries for work. Some immigration lawyers provide their services pro bono or for a reduced fee.

Lawyers typically work for private or corporate law firms, though you may also work for a government agency or own your own practice. Those who work for firms often start out as associates, and some advance to become partners - or partial owners - of the firm. As an immigration lawyer, you can expect to work long hours, especially when researching or reviewing documents in preparation for a case. You'll generally work from a comfortable office, though you may have to travel to clients' locations or courts to conduct business. This job can be very stressful, particularly for those who represent clients during trials.

Salary Info and Career Prospects

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the mean annual wage for lawyers, regardless of specialization, was about $133,000 as of May 2014. Lawyers that practiced in Washington, DC, and California enjoyed the highest annual mean wages at $169,000 and $158,000, respectively. Keep in mind that attorneys who run solo practices tend to bring in lower salaries than those who work as part of a partnership.

Job opportunities for lawyers in general were expected to increase by ten percent between 2012 and 2022, according to the BLS. Despite this steady growth, competition in the job market will continue to be keen due to the fact that there are more law school graduates than open positions. If you can't find full-time employment after law school, you might be able to obtain a temporary position through a staffing firm - an option many entry-level lawyers take in order to gain experience and skills in this competitive field.

What Are the Requirements?

Education and Licensure

Like all practicing attorneys, immigration lawyers must be admitted to the bar, or licensed, in order to take on clients. According to the BLS, most states require you to complete a 3-year Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree program accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA) in order to be eligible for the bar exam.

Admission into law school usually requires a bachelor's degree, though no specific undergraduate major is required. Getting into a top law school is highly competitive, and students must have outstanding grade point averages and Law School Admission Test (LSAT) scores. For example, of the 3,173 applicants to Yale Law School's class of 2014, only 259 candidates were offered admission. The median GPA of successful candidates was 3.90 with a median LSAT score of 173 out of 180.

During law school, you can expect to cover general legal topics like contracts, constitutional law and civil procedure as well as electives in subjects of your choosing, like corporate or immigration law. You'll also take part in moot and practice trials, and you might have the opportunity to get practical experience through law clinics affiliated with your school. After receiving a J.D., passing your state's bar exam and becoming licensed, most states require you to participate in continuing education to stay abreast of development in the field.

Skills

Attorneys must also develop excellent interpersonal and communication skills so as to best understand and represent their clients. You'll need analytical and research skills as well as strong attention to detail in order to explore vast quantities of legal data and identify the relevant information. The ability to be objective is also essential, because you'll need to separate your emotions and biases from fact in order to provide a fair and rational defense or consultation. Additionally, lawyers benefit from strong computer skills, since virtual legal libraries and the Internet are often used to conduct research.

What Employers Are Looking for

Immigration lawyers must have a firm grasp of the law in general as well as issues pertaining to immigration, citizenship and employment law. Since this job entails working with people whose native language is not English, many employers prefer to hire lawyers who speak and write in an additional language. Take a look at a selection of April 2012 job postings for immigration lawyers:

  • An international global management consulting firm is seeking an immigration lawyer to work in Poland in coordination with their immigration legal team in New York. Applicants must have at least five years of experience in immigration law and business advising, and the ideal applicant is fluent in an Asian or European language.
  • A small immigration law firm in California is seeking an entry-level associate attorney to join their team. Candidates must have their J.D., be a member of the bar and be fluent in English, Spanish and Portuguese. In the position, the attorney will work with the immigrant population in California and help with issues such as naturalization, asylum and deportation defense.
  • An international law firm in California is seeking an immigration attorney to help facilitate issues of business immigration. Candidates should have at least five years of experience and be a member of the bar. Applicants should also demonstrate outstanding writing, research and customer service skills.

How to Stand Out

Join a Professional Organization

Though not a requirement to practice, immigration lawyers can seek membership to the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA). Through the AILA, lawyers can benefit from networking, educational and mentoring opportunities specific to their field. To become a member, lawyers must be in good standing with their state bar and have not faced any disciplinary action for three years prior to application.

Consider Earning an Advanced Law Degree

Some J.D. holders go on to earn their Master of Laws (LL.M.) degrees. An LL.M. degree is not required for this profession, and the ABA does not offer accreditation for such programs; however, the Law School Admission Council reports that the degree serves as a form of advanced credentialing and can help you develop your career and credibility as a lawyer. You must have your J.D. degree to enter an LL.M. program, but you do not need to retake the LSAT to gain admission. The program takes one year of additional full-time study and often allows you to take specialized courses in the field of your choice, such as immigration law.

Other Careers to Consider

If you have passion for the law but don't want to endure extensive education and licensing to become a lawyer, consider a career as a paralegal. In this career, you'll help attorneys prepare legal cases. For example, you might conduct research or draft legal documentation. Most paralegals can find a position with an associate's or bachelor's degree, and licensure is not required. The BLS predicted job growth to be at 18% for the 2010 to 2020 decade, higher that the growth estimated for lawyers; however, paralegals earn significantly less than attorneys. As of May 2011, the BLS reported that the mean salary of a paralegal was about $50,000.

If you prefer working for a court rather than a law firm, consider a position as a judicial law clerk. Much like lawyers and paralegals, you'll conduct research and prepare legal documentation, except that law clerks assist judges rather than represent clients. The education requirements are less strict for law clerks than for immigration lawyers; most law clerks hold graduate degrees, though some have law or medical degrees. It's important to note that job growth is expected to be slower-than-average at a rate of eight percent from 2010-2020, according to the BLS. Additionally, the mean salary for law clerks is also lower than that of paralegals and lawyers at about $47,000 as of May 2011.

Popular Schools

  • Online Programs Available
    1. Kaplan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MSCJ: Law
      • Master: Legal Studies
      • Master: Criminal Justice
      • MSCJ: Global Issues in Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
      • Bachelor: Criminal Justice
    Associate's
      • AAS in Legal Support and Services
      • Associate: Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal
  • Online Programs Available
    2. Capella University

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • PhD: Criminal Justice
    Master's
      • Master: Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor: Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    3. Grand Canyon University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
      • Master of Public Administration - Government and Policy
    Bachelor's
      • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies
      • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in State and Local Public Policy
  • Online Programs Available
    4. Ashford University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS-Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • B.A. - Social and Criminal Justice
      • BA/Real Estate Studies
      • B.A. - International Business
  • Online Programs Available
    5. University of the Rockies

    Program Options

    Doctorate
      • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
  • Online Programs Available
    6. Saint Joseph's University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS - Criminal Justice with Intelligence & Crime Analysis
  • Online Programs Available
    7. Southern New Hampshire University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • MS in Criminal Justice
      • International MBA in Criminal Justice
      • MBA in Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    8. Regent University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
      • Master of Arts in Law
      • Master of Arts in Law - Administration and Regulatory Law
      • Master of Arts in Law - General Legal Studies
      • Master of Arts in Law - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Government
      • Bachelor of Applied Science in Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice
      • Bachelor of Science in Professional Studies - Criminal Justice
  • Online Programs Available
    9. Penn Foster Career School

    Program Options

    Certificate
      • Career Diploma: Paralegal
      • Career Diploma: Legal Secretary
      • Career Diploma - Legal Transcriptionist
      • Certificate - Advanced Paralegal Applications
      • Certificate - Real Estate, Wills and Estates for Paralegals
  • Online Programs Available
    10. Indiana Wesleyan University

    Program Options

    Master's
      • Master of Public Administration - Criminal Justice
    Bachelor's
      • B.S. Criminal Justice
      • B.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
    Associate's
      • A.S. Criminal Justice
      • A.S. General Studies - Criminal Justice
    Certificate
      • Undergraduate Certificate - Criminal Justice

Featured Schools

Kaplan University

  • MSCJ: Law
  • Undergraduate in Legal Studies
  • AAS in Legal Support and Services
  • Postbaccalaureate Certificate - Pathway to Paralegal

Which subject are you interested in?

Capella University

  • PhD: Criminal Justice
  • Master: Criminal Justice
  • Bachelor: Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education completed?

Grand Canyon University

  • MS in Criminal Justice: Legal Studies
  • Master of Public Administration - Government and Policy
  • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in Legal Studies
  • B.A. in Government with an Emphasis in State and Local Public Policy

What is your highest level of education?

Ashford University

  • MS-Criminal Justice
  • B.A. - Social and Criminal Justice
  • BA/Real Estate Studies

What is your highest level of education?

University of the Rockies

  • Doctor of Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies
  • Master of Arts in Psychology - Criminology and Justice Studies

What is your highest level of education?

Saint Joseph's University

  • MS - Criminal Justice with Intelligence & Crime Analysis

What is your highest level of education completed?

Southern New Hampshire University

  • MS in Criminal Justice
  • International MBA in Criminal Justice
  • MBA in Criminal Justice

What is your highest level of education?

Regent University

  • Master of Arts in Government - Law and Public Policy
  • Master of Arts in Law
  • Bachelor of Arts in Government - Pre-Law
  • Bachelor of Arts in Leadership Studies - Government

What is your highest level of education completed?